(Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 5:14-29)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been arrested for the first time. The Montgomery police had been tailing the cars of everyone involved in the boycott of the racist segregated bus system. They had arrested King for driving five miles an hour above the speed limit. It was a nasty experience for him, a day in the jail. When he came back home the threatening phone calls he had been receiving, and that all the leaders of the boycott had been receiving, increased into a frenzy.
This was just a couple of months after the start of the boycott of the racist segregated bus system in Montgomery, AL, just a couple of months after this young preacher, in his mid-twenties, with his young family, new to town, had been thrust into a leadership role in this local resistance movement. He had been reluctant to take that on, but the leadership in the Black community (many of whom were women, by the way, and they had been preparing for this boycott for a long time … Rosa Parks just feeling tired one day and not wanting to move to the back of the bus is a fairy tale – this was a carefully orchestrated, intelligent, disciplined plan to forge a movement that jams the system of racism) these leaders had wanted a fresh face to be a spokesperson for the movement, so they talked this young promising new preacher into it.
Dr. King was reluctant, but he stepped up and said “yes”. Very quickly the movement took off, and he discovered that when you try to jam the system of racism, that racism will bite down as viciously as it can.
After his arrest and all this scary, threatening harassment, Dr. King had a crisis in confidence. It hit late one night when his wife Coretta and their first daughter were asleep and he got a phone call. The voice said, “If you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow out your brains and blow up your house.” King hung up. Of all the threats, this one got to him and rattled him deep down.
So what he did next was sit down at his kitchen table and pray.
This is what he prayed out loud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”
This is what happened next, in his own words: “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ … I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
His fears were driven out and he felt a great deep calm inside of him.
A few days later, as promised, someone did set off a bomb at his house. Coretta and their baby daughter and their friend were at home, but they had become alert to something suspicious going on and they got to a safe part of the house just in time. So no one was hurt. But someone, and many people in fact, filled with hate, had wanted very much to hurt them.
Everyone who saw Dr. King as he responded to the situation was amazed by the calm and the strength that he carried with him. God had prepared him. And this religious experience in prayer, the gift he had received, was something he would remember and bring back into his heart through the years as the struggle and the danger only grew. God had prepared him.
It is important to see how God had prepared him through this prayer. This story is a great model for how to pray and when to pray, no matter who you are.
First of all this prayer came in the midst of the life of a person who was trying his best to respond to the urgent demands of his time, and to respond in a way that was listening for the Word that God is speaking to that time, to know what is right and to do what is right. He didn’t run away, he didn’t say “no.” But by saying “yes,” he had to come face-to-face with the most twisted violent sinful forces at work in our American society. He had to face the cross. And this caused a crisis within him, because this is scary stuff, the cross of the lynching tree, and the cross of officially sanctioned murder, the violence of racism that possesses white America.
He responded to the crisis of the cross by praying to God.
Look closely at how he prays.
He first connects with his desire to be a servant of God and of his people and of the truth, “I’m trying to do what’s right.” Then he goes deeper and he opens his secret heart to God. He is totally honest, as a confession, in a way that he doesn’t dare be with anyone else. “God, I confess I’m feeling week. I’m faltering. I’m losing courage. And I’m afraid of what will happen then, because if I lose courage the people who are depending on me will lose courage. I’m worried for myself, I’m worried for my family, I’m worried for my community, and I’m worried for all the responsibility I have in the role that you’ve put me in.”
After he had bared his soul before God in this way, the response came. His Creator called him by name and assured him that he is not alone, that he has a companion who is rooted in eternity who gives him strength and calm as he stands up for what is true and good and just.
This is a powerful way to pray. It’s a great model.
It’s a powerful way to pray in whatever station of life you’re in, whatever activity you’re engaged in, whatever troubles and triumphs are up for you. This kind of praying is not just for the great movement leaders struggling for justice. This is bread and butter kind of prayer – he prayed it at his kitchen table after all – and it’s a model that that can work for us in the ordinary times as well as the extraordinary.
But we better watch out, because this is the kind of praying that can propel us into doing things that we may not think we’re capable of. This is how to pray with heart & hands & feet. This is prayer for action. Prayer for inner peace and outer action.
So what’s the model?
1. Express the desire to be connected with God and to live according to what is right. Even if that’s “God, I don’t know if you really exist.” Folks have shared with me powerful prayer experiences that have started that kind way. Because even if you say, “God, we don’t talk much and I’m not sure you’re there …” the next line is “… but I’m scared. I’m confused …” This is the next stage of prayer: 2. Confess how we feel about all of this, about God and about our life and our world. Be honest, even with the secrets that we don’t tell anyone else. King said “I’m feeling weak.” 3. The other thing to be honest about is how this can affect the people we care about. King said, “God, I’m losing courage and I don’t want to lose courage because I’m afraid that will hurt all the people looking to me for strength.” So this is, again, 1. Connecting to God or to Jesus, 2. Connecting to our innermost, honest heart of hearts, and 3. Connecting all that to other people we care about. Then that last step is 4. Wait. This step can take the most faith. Wait. `Be quiet and listen. And be open to what happens next.
It’s best to not impose expectations about what happens next. Pray out from the heart, and that can be enough.
Now, it’s important to notice that what happened to Dr. King in this prayer, what he received from it, is a testimony, he was working in his life. And his testimony is an echo of the other testimonies of our faith, of the Biblical prophets and the disciples.
Listen to Habakkuk, from our first reading. He calls out to God with this passionate desire to hear from God, to connect with God and to know the truth. He cries out with this desperation of feeling, “O Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me. Strife and contention arise. (Can we feel this? Do we relate to this in our day and age?) So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”
The prophet throughout is crying out to God, from his heart, and is crying out for his people, like the third step in King’s prayer, he’s connecting to his people, who are exploited and bedeviled by those who wield power against them.
Do we hear this? In our day and age, in these troubled times, do we hear folks praying like this, with their hearts & hands & feet?
Who is crying out like this these days?
Who has reason to fear? Who is suffering the pain of injustice or violence?
Whose voices do we hear praying like this? Out in Standing Rock? In the hearts of our cities? In the towns that’ve been left behind?
Whose voices are we not hearing? In the fields, on the boarders?
These are troubled times. As we all know. It’s best to be honest about that.
And it’s best to be honest that one of the reasons that these are troubled times is that the forces that Dr. King was called to confront in our society are very much alive and well today. Is that our call too?
Back to Habakkuk. When Habakkuk cried out from this heart, he connected to God, he connected to his people, then he waited. The answer came: “Write the vision, make it plain. Have peace in your heart and live with justice. Leave the rest to God.”
The reassurance is similar to that of Psalm 37: “Trust in the Holy One and do good. Don’t fret, don’t worry about the wicked, but do what is good.”
That’s comforting. But it’s also discomforting, because it’s a call to go and do, and to go and do in a way that we may not at first think we’re capable of.
When we pray with our hearts, in troubled times, we are called to pray also with our hands and feet. We receive a word of peace, a word of reassurance at the same time as we receive a call to action that will push us in whatever station of life we are.
But know that if we pray with heart and hands and feet in whatever trouble we find ourselves in, the promise to us is that we are not alone. Jesus promises never to leave us, never to leave us alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promises never to leave us, never to leave us alone.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered October 2, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg. The story of MLK’s kitchen table prayer is from the biography “Bearing the Cross” by David J. Garrow.)